One of the greatest gifts that America has given to the world is the idea that the leader of a nation should be chosen freely by its people. Well, perhaps the notion did not originate in America, but the Yanks certainly showed the world how to do it. More spectacularly and more originally, the United States pioneered the following novel concept: when the favor of the people transfers from one faction (as Madison called them) or party to another, then the defeated incumbent gracefully steps aside as his victorious opponent peacefully and lawfully takes his place as the new leader. Indeed the peaceful transfer of power from the Federalists (Adams) to the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson) in 1801 must be regarded as one of the most momentous advances in the history of human freedom.
Thus having taught the world how to peacefully install a legitimate leader, as well as how to gracefully escort him to the exit, it was incumbent upon the American people to decide how long they wished the time span between entrance and exit to last. George Washington solved the problem. He refused to serve more than two terms – thus setting a powerful precedent that lasted nearly a century and a half. This feature of America government became ingrained in our political DNA: presidents serve no more than two terms. And when finally this virtual commandment was violated by FDR, the nation ensured that there would be no repeat offense by writing it into the Constitution.
It is my thesis, however, that Washington set not only an upper bound, but a lower bound as well. Namely, he established the precedent that, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so, a sitting president shall be re-elected to a concluding second term. In fact, with the exception of two relatively brief periods (of 20-25 years each), it has been the habit of the American people to re-elect their presidents – unless one of two readily identifiable conditions (to be explained below) obtains.
In particular, not only Washington, but five of the first seven presidents were elected to two terms – the only exceptions being the Adams boys, father and son. Then followed a period (1837-1861) in which the American people gave the hook to every president. This fickle electoral behavior coincided with the extremely volatile antebellum period during which America was wrestling with the highly divisive slavery issue, as well as the rapid westward expansion of the nation.
The country reverted to form during 1861-1877 when it elected and re-elected Lincoln and Grant. But then came another 20-year period (1877-1897) when no president was re-elected. This includes Cleveland who served two non-consecutive terms. The explanation for non-stop presidential turnover in this period is not as clear cut as it is for the antebellum period. Certainly the late 1800s was a time of great upheaval in the country – but without any calamitous issue like slavery. It was the period of America’s industrialization: large migrations from farms to cities, growth of manufacturing, accumulation of wealth, massive immigration and the emergence of the USA as a world power. America was impatiently fulfilling its destiny as the world’s greatest bastion of individual liberty and free market prosperity. Perhaps its impatience extended to its assessments of its leaders.
Whatever the cause, following this period, the country reverted to form again in terms of its treatment of sitting presidents – and it remained there. From 1897 until 2009, only four US presidents were defeated for re-election: Taft, Hoover, Carter and Bush the father. (I do not count LBJ as he stepped aside voluntarily.) In the specified 112-year period, most sitting presidents, of both parties, were re-elected. The American people even re-elected FDR three times. So, how to explain the four exceptions? They fall into two categories. First Taft and Bush the elder. Both fell victim to an unusually strong third party candidate – Taft to Teddy Roosevelt and Bush to Ross Perot. Sans the extra competitor, it is almost certain that both Taft and Bush would have been re-elected. (I note, parenthetically, that the existence of such a candidate does not guarantee an upset – witness the 1924 election where the strong third party candidacy of LaFollette did not derail Coolidge’s re-election.)
More interesting are Hoover and Carter, who were trounced by their challengers without the help of a strong third party accomplice. Simply put, the people judged these two men to be incompetent, misguided and dangerous to the Republic. The public held them directly responsible for the sorry economic state of the country at the time of their race for re-election and sought remedy by decisively expelling them from office. Since the Spanish-American War, these two men hold the unique distinction of being the only sitting presidents to be summarily fired. This is quite an achievement on their part because many of our re-elected presidents were not held in universally high esteem. Yes, some were extremely popular and were re-elected in a cake walk (e.g., Reagan, Eisenhower, FDR); but others had to battle mightily to retain their positions, sometimes by slim margins (e.g., Bush the younger, Truman, Wilson). The American people might have been ambivalent about the latter presidents’ performances, but as was their natural inclination, the people stuck with their president. Not so for Hoover and Carter who are now universally ranked among our worst presidents.